MADISON -- Sports can be cruel. They can be agonizingly, inexplicably and gut-wrenchingly cruel.
Under the smoke-breathing temperatures and setting sun at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the events that unfolded epitomized this very notion: sports aren't subjective to your emotions or desires; they do as they so please.
The Wisconsin Badgers won the game. Then they didn't.
Then they did again. They they didn't.
It was almost indescribable, really, the way in which the No. 25 Badgers (8-3, 5-2 Big Ten) fell 13-7 on Senior Day to the No. 20 Northwestern Wildcats (9-2, 5-2).
Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst gave it his best go.
"Well, it was a tough game to lose," Chryst said.
An understatement, to say the least.
"It sucks, basically," junior running back Corey Clement said. "I felt as if we won three times."
For 58 minutes, redshirt senior quarterback Joel Stave performed woefully in what was his last game in Madison. Then a two-minute drill as the game clock winded down appeared to be the senior's poetic redemption.
Stave won the game. Then he didn't.
Then he did again. Then he didn't.
Trailing by six points late in the fourth quarter, the Badgers stood at their own 26 yard-line, the clock read 1 minute, 47 seconds. To emerge victorious, Stave would have to lead his team 74 yards down the field and into the south Camp Randall end zone.
He could only lead them 73.
Twice, the Badgers appeared to score the dramatic game-tying touchdown. With an all-but guaranteed Rafael Gaglianone extra point, Wisconsin was going to emerge, somehow, victorious.
Twice, the call on the field of a Badgers game-tying touchdown was overturned.
First, Stave won the game.
From the 22 yard-line, he dropped the ball nicely into the hands of redshirt sophomore tight end Troy Fumagalli on a seam route near the left hash with 31 seconds left.
Then, Stave didn't win it.
The referees signaled it was a touchdown, but upon review, it was clear Fumagalli's knee was down at the one-yard line.
Then, Stave won it again.
From the doorstep, Stave rolled out to his right and connected with wide receiver Jazz Peavy for a touchdown to tie Northwestern at 13.
Peavy grabbed the ball, then took a step. One. Two. Three. Four. The redshirt sophomore fell to the ground and was ruled to have possession.
Stave, who was knocked down on by the Wildcat pass rush on the play, lay face-down at the 15-yard line and emphatically slapped his arms on the ground twice.
"The whole time I knew it was a catch," Peavy said.
Once again, the officials went to review the play. No big deal, it was thought to be. The consensus thought was that Peavy's four steps with clear possession indicated that he caught the ball.
"I don't understand it," Peavy said of the ruling.
Once again unrelenting, Stave then didn't win the game.
For the second time in two plays and the third on the day, the ill-lucked Badgers had their game-tying points taken off the scoreboard.
What happened next was a nightmare for those clad in red at Camp Randall.
A scene taken straight from Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events", Stave was sacked for a 10-yard loss. Stave -- who ended the game 20-of-34 for 229 yards and two interceptions -- was shaken up on the play, so, with no timeouts remaining, redshirt junior running back Dare Ogunbowale craftily stepped under center and spiked the ball with six seconds remaining.
Stave's injury caused backup quarterback Bart Houston to take the Badgers final shot at the end zone on fourth and goal. His pass to wide receiver Tanner McEvoy grazed off the redshirt senior's fingertips.
It seemed surreal, what had just transpired in the matter of minutes under the dark sky in Madison.
By all standards of meritocracy, Stave and the Badgers offense had no business even being presented with that chance to win the game in the first place. He had completed 15 of 26 passes for 150 yards, thrown two interceptions and lost one fumble as the Badgers stood with just 140 total yards and nearly as many turnovers (five) as points (seven).
Football, however, never operates on logic, and the Wisconsin defense showed they weren't believer in any merit-based system, either.
"I thought our defense played tremendous and individual efforts, group efforts, gave us a chance to be in that game and to win," Chryst said. "And that's not common.
"You turn the ball over five times, four on offense, one on special teams and even to have a chance to win the game, that's a credit to that group."
The Badgers had limited Northwestern to less than two yards per play in the second half (1.74) and just 210 yards on the day. Despite six drives starting in Wisconsin position, the Wildcats only scored 13 points.
Northwestern's lone touchdown came with 9:12 remaining in the first quarter, aided heavily by Stave's first interception.
Stave was pressured in the pocket and threw underneath to his receiver, but Northwestern tipped the ball at the line of scrimmage. A fortuitous bounce favored the purple and, three plays later, a Justin Jackson eight-yard touchdown run that some may have confused for a walk in the park put Northwestern up 7-0.
Jack Mitchell connected on a 35-yard field goal as the first half ended gave the Wildcats a 10-0 halftime lead.
Wisconsin opened the game with consecutive three-play drives. The second ended with a Stave interception on a pass tipped at the line of scrimmage and gave the Wildcats the ball at the 19-yard line.
Three plays later, a Justin Jackson eight-yard touchdown run, which some may have confused for a walk in the park, put Northwestern up 7-0.
The Badgers responded to the score with their best drive of the half. Characteristic to the game, however, it of course ended in a fumble by McEvoy at the Wildcats 47 yard-line.
That summarizes the Wisconsin offense's Sisyphean day.
The Badgers lone touchdown came on a nine-yard run from Corey Clement with 8:24 remaining in the third quarter to pull within 10-7. On the drive, Wisconsin surpassed its entire first half offensive production of 50 yards on 28 plays, going 64 yards on five plays.
42 of those came on a pass from Stave to wide receiver Peavy, who got behind the Northwestern secondary on a deep corner route. Peavy added another grab on the drive to rack up 58 of the drive's 64 yards.
Fueled by six sacks of Stave for -50 yards, the Badgers finished with -26 yards on the ground. The Badgers rushing attack entered the game averaging 154.6 yards per game, but failed to move around the Wildcats front throughout the contest.
It was the first time Wisconsin was held to negative rushing yards since 2006.
"Makes it really hard, I think," Chryst said. "You've got to be able to run the football. And certainly, the six sacks add to the total. But we were not getting anything consistent and that's hard. We have got to do a much better job running the football if we really want to have a chance to win games."
Clement returned to action after sitting out Wisconsin's previous game two weeks ago at Maryland due to groin soreness and led the Badgers with 24 yards on 10 carries.
Another touchdown that was called back for the Badgers only amplified the heartbreak from the reversal of the final two scores.
Officials retracted an Alex Erickson punt return for touchdown in the third quarter that would have pulled Wisconsin even at 13, citing an invalid fair catch signal. Erickson appeared to be signaling his teammates to get away from the ball, which bounced before it reached him. The senior wide receiver then picked up the ball, shook off multiple defenders and ran it back for a score.
According to the NCAA rule, an "invalid fair catch signal deprives the receiving team of the opportunity to advance the ball. The ball is declared dead at the spot of the catch or recover o at the spot of the signal if the catch precedes the signal." Erickson's signal was not over his head and was, therefore, not valid.
To qualify as an invalid signal, the action must be "any waving signal" that: either is given "after a scrimmage kick is caught beyond the neutral zone, strikes the ground or touches another player beyond the neutral zone" or is given "after a free kick is caught, strikes the ground or touches another player."
Erickson began his wave before the ball struck the ground, but motioned once again after the ball struck the ground, which is what led the officials to make their ruling.
"Everyone's used to the over-the-head fair catch signal," Chryst said. "And now I understand what they were calling. When the ball bounces short and you try to warn everyone to get away form the ball, any signal at all, the returner can't advance it."
On Erickson's next punt return, he made sure to signal a "valid" fair catch. The only issue for the Badgers was he then muffed the punt, which Northwestern recovered at the Wisconsin 30 with 1:13 remaining in the third quarter.
The second of Northwestern kicker Jack Mitchell's two missed field goals on the day kept the score at 10-7.
Wisconsin's ensuing possessions resulted in a three-and-out and two Stave turnovers. Stave fumbled at his own 37 yard line with 10:39 remaining in the fourth quarter, then threw an interception to Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker at the Wisconsin 20 with 7:48 left to play.
To no surprise, both times the Badgers defense buckled down. The Wildcats gained just three yards combined and only came away with a Mitchell 37-yard field goal off the turnovers.
A holding penalty put a dagger in Wisconsin's next drive, but, once again, the defense paid the ransom and got the ball back in Stave's hands for one last-ditch attempt.
And what a last-ditch attempt it was. Stave completed 5-of-8 passes for 73 yards. Only one more was needed for the Badgers to emerge victorious.
Wisconsin struggled mightily on third down, converting only 2-of-13 opportunities. The result was poor field position throughout the game. The Badgers average drive began at their own 24-yard line, while Northwestern's was at their own 41.
Earlier in the day, Wisconsin's slim chances of winning the Big Ten West division fell through when Iowa defeated Purdue 40-20 to remain undefeated at 11-0.
That left the Badgers fighting for bowl game positioning. Coming into the game, Wisconsin was still in place, likely, for anywhere from the third-highest Big Ten bowl bid to the sixth.
The expected narrative by this point in the season, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's unit was the Badgers' lone saving grace. After surrendering the eight-yard run to Jackson, in seven home games, the defense allowed only three touchdowns to opponents.
Northwestern, which came into the game averaging 343 yards and 21 points per game on offense, was limited by the Badgers defense to just 209 yards and 12 first downs. In the second half, Wisconsin held the Wildcats to drives of 29, seven, seven, six, three and three yards on their first six possessions.
Redshirt junior outside linebacker Vince Biegel led the way with 14 tackles, one sack and 1.5 tackles for loss. Senior outside linebacker Joe Schobert had three tackles for loss and 13 total on the day, with redshirt sophomore inside linebacker Jack Cichy accumulating 11 tackles.
Wildcats quarterback Clay Thorson threw for 60 yards on 9-for-20 passing. Jackson rushed 35 times for 140 yards and a touchdown.
Both Peavy and McEvoy posted career highs of receptions and yards. Peavy led the Badgers with five catches and 88 receiving yards. McEvoy grabbed five passes as well for 57 yards.
Three times the Badgers found the end zone, appearing to have taken the lead against the Wildcats. Three times the sideline erupted along with the 75,276 fans at Camp Randall.
And three times that lead was taken away by reversed calls on the field. A bitter taste lingered in the Badgers locker room.
"Erickson with the great punt return, and we all see Fumagali didn't get in, so that's acceptable, but with Jazz's, it was a great catch and I thought he was in," Clement said. "I thought he had possession and I thought we won the game there."
Erickson, who had a touchdown of his own called back, felt the same sheer disappointment.
"It was very emotional, just so disappointing," Erickson said. "When I saw Troy's catch, I had a good view of it, so I knew he was going to be short there. And then the Jazz play, it's just disappointing. But it is what it is and we just didn't make enough plays tonight."
Coupled with the letdown from the roller coaster of emotions brought about by the triumvirate of called back scores, Wisconsin poignantly walked away knowing the current senior class would never play a home game again.
"That's the most disheartening thing for myself, personally," Biegel said. "I wanted to come out here and play for our seniors. We have so many great guys who did so many great things here at the university. So for us to not send those guys off on the right note, it's a disappointing thing."
"It sucks," Clement said. "After the game, everyone and our seniors were just down.
"Everyone wants to do their best and I want them to leave with the best memory possible."
That was the storybook ending the Badgers desired Saturday. What they received, in turn, was the exact opposite.
Sports can be cruel like that.